Harvard University is home to some of the world’s finest virologists. But apparently they do not communicate with the writers at Harvard Magazine, where a botched story on the avian H5N1 influenza virus has just been published.
The problems begin with the first paragraph:
But when Dutch researchers recently created an even more deadly strain of the virus in a laboratory for research purposes, they stirred grave concerns about what would happen if it escaped into the outside world.
Readers of virology blog will know by now that the Dutch researchers did not make an ‘even more deadly strain of the virus’ – they made one that could be transmitted by aerosol, but which had lost its lethality.
The title of the article, ‘The Deadliest Virus’, presumably refers to the H5N1 virus that transmits by aerosol among ferrets. This title is simply wrong, because the virus is not deadly to ferrets.
The first paragraph also contains an equally egregious statement by epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch:
If you make a strain that’s highly transmissible between humans, as the Dutch team did, it could be disastrous if it ever escaped the lab.
Dr. Lipsitch seems to be saying that the Dutch group created an H5N1 virus that transmits among humans. As far as I know, ferrets are not humans.
The article is accompanied by a photograph of two scientists working in BSL4 suits. The legend reads:
The modified H5N1 virus could infect a billion people if it escaped a biocontainment lab like the Canadian facility shown above.
And later Lipsitch is quoted as saying:
It could infect millions of people in the United States, and very likely more than a billion people globally, like most successful flu strains do. This might be one of the worst viruses, perhaps the worst virus, in existence right now because it has both transmissibility and high virulence.
For Lipsitch to say that the virus is both transmissible and of high virulence in humans is a misrepresentation of the Dutch group’s findings. He seems to be making up numbers and scenarios.
Perhaps Dr. Lipsitch does not know that ferret studies are not predictive of how viruses will behave in humans. With so many virologists at Harvard, the writer could have checked Dr. Lipsitch’s statements. But he did not, and the result looks as foolish as the New York Times.